literature · Other stuff · Walking

Frankenstein, urban walking and the uncanny.

In the last blog, I wrote about the connections between walking and nature in Frankenstein. On the one hand, there are the rational, Romantic imaginations of Victor and Clerval who observe and document the landscape to present it to the reader as if they were viewing the scene through a cinema screen; on the other hand, there is the physicality of the monster’s walking, the sensory documentation of his body’s reaction and response to the exertion of his perambulations. And then there exists, in the interstices of these two, Victor’s own sensory exertions which he experiences on his treks across the Arctic: when he becomes the hunter and slave to his vengeance, he too begins to describe the physical, bodily response to the walking.

In this blog, I’d like to turn to the ways in which Mary Shelley describes walking through urban landscapes. Mary certainly enjoyed walking: the word ‘walk’ appears 117 times in the Project Gutenberg on-line collection of her letters, with many of these walks being of the mundane variety: walks to Hampstead Heath, Fleet Street or Primrose Hill, but there were also the walks of adventure through the Alps with her husband, Percy. It is interesting to note that, in Frankenstein, whilst the descriptions of walking through natural landscapes emphasise the openness and the sublime – and terrible – beauty of nature, Victor’s descriptions of the city, whether Geneva or Ingolstadt – are often characterised by references to enclosure. When he escapes the presence of his creation on that fateful “dreary night of November” he walks through the streets of Ingolstadt:

Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned and discovered to my sleepless and aching eyes the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour. The porter opened the gates of the court, which had that night been my asylum, and I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.

I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind. I traversed the streets without any clear conception of where I was or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear, and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me…

Rather than the expansive descriptions of natural landscapes, Shelley’s language foregrounds Victor’s sense of spiritual, emotional and even physical confinement. The church he sees is a symbol of the searching eye of conscience as well as a reminder of his scientific heresies, the apotheosis of which has caused his terror. He has literally imprisoned himself within the city space. Victor’s reference to his own personal ‘asylum’ triggers other connotations – a house for his madness as well as a place of escape. It is also interesting to note that, having lost all sense of reason, he feels the exertions of walking – the ‘palpitat[ing]’ heart and the loss of rhythm in his ‘irregular steps’.

The imagery of confinement and the idea of the city as a prison is repeated several times. On his return to Geneva following his news of William’s murder, Victor notes that “It was completely dark when I arrived in the environs of Geneva; the gates of the town were already shut”. Whilst Geneva and his home become a prison, his excursions on the lake are moments of escape: “The shutting of the gates regularly at ten o’clock and the impossibility of remaining on the lake after that hour had rendered our residence within the walls of Geneva very irksome to me. I was now free.”

This confinement, the sense of being locked in or out, also forms part of Justine’s account of her search for William:

The gates of Geneva were shut, and she was forced to remain several hours of the night in a barn belonging to a cottage, being unwilling to call up the inhabitants, to whom she was well known. Most of the night she spent here watching; towards morning she believed that she slept for a few minutes; some steps disturbed her, and she awoke. It was dawn, and she quitted her asylum, that she might again endeavour to find my brother.

It is also interesting to note the lack of description of urban spaces, notwithstanding the accounts of Victor and Clerval’s journeys through England, although even here, London is passed by with reference only to St Pauls and the Tower (again, St Paul’s is “towering”, with Shelley using the language of mountains to describe buildings). Certainly, Victor’s journeys through the city of Geneva are more mundane and perhaps reflect Mary’s own feelings about urban space. In a letter written in June 1816, Mary describes the town of Geneva in less salubrious terms:

But while I still dwell on the country around Geneva, you will expect me to say something of the town itself; there is nothing, however, in it that can repay you for the trouble of walking over its rough stones. The houses are high, the streets narrow, many of them on the ascent, and no public building of any beauty to attract your eye, or any architecture to gratify your taste. The town is surrounded by a wall, the three gates of which are shut exactly at ten o’clock, when no bribery (as in France) can open them.

Shelley’s dismissal of the city’s architecture on aesthetic grounds perhaps prepares the way for Victor’s own reluctance to paint urban scenes with the same flourish as he does the Alpine scenery through which he chases his nemesis.

Walking scenes are crucibles of the novel’s themes of displacement and the uncanny. Later on in chapter 25 when Victor decides to “quit Geneva forever”, he is confounded by the labyrinth of the city:

I wandered many hours round the confines of the town, uncertain what path I should pursue. As night approached I found myself at the entrance of the cemetery where William, Elizabeth, and my father reposed. I entered it and approached the tomb which marked their graves.

Again, the town is referred to in terms of a prison, and Victor finds himself returning to sites of pain and regret, reinforcing again the links between walking and death. Alive, he is excluded from the family unit, his brother, sister-wife and his father all united in death. In the novel’s most famous walking scene, these threads – death, walking, and the urban uncanny – all come together in a scene which encapsulates the novel’s themes of displacement, maternal anxieties, the uncanny swirling and labyrinthine mise-en-abyme of its narrative, and the merging of reality and fantasy. In a nightmare following his creation’s birth, Victor describes the appearance of his cousin, lifelong love, and future wife, Elizabeth, walking through the streets of his native Ingolstadt:

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel.

In my first blog on this topic, I discussed the Freudian symbolism, the displacement of Frankenstein’s mother by Elizabeth, and the suggestion that there can be no mothers in Frankenstein because Victor adopts both maternal and paternal roles. Victor’s dream of Elizabeth positions her as mother-substitute but there is also his fear of her own transgression. As street-walker, there is a latent fear of Elizabeth’s own sexuality which is completely opposite to Victor’s own portrayal of this perfect woman. It is not just the conflict of maternity and procreation that bothers Victor, it’s the fact that he doesn’t need sex or women to create life, and that perhaps Elizabeth will recognise this and ultimately reject him.

However, in the context of this blog, it’s worth considering this powerful moment from the viewpoint of gender and a woman’s position as an urban pedestrian. Why does Elizabeth walk? Why doesn’t Shelley situate this encounter in a house, for example? And why Ingolstadt? Elizabeth’s presence as a lone walker in a foreign university town is incongruous within an early nineteenth-century urban context. Whilst this period heralded the birth of the flâneur, this figure was essentially a man who strolled the city streets, an idle wanderer whose object was the city itself. His leisured gaze was one of privilege invested in him by a patriarchal world that enabled him to walk through the streets as an observer of the world, a topophile for whom the city is a playground. However, a woman who walked the streets alone was a different tale: as Lauren Elkin points out in her fabulous book, Flâneuse: women walk the city, women who walked out alone and without ‘purpose’, whether in the day or at night, were often incongruous, an anomaly who most likely received social disapprobation. After all, wasn’t the streetwalking woman something entirely different to the man about town embodied in the form of the flâneur? For a woman to walk out on her own, she often had to adopt the guise of a man (witness George Sand, or Gentleman Jack); Virginia Woolf referred to her walks as ‘street-haunting’. This is not to say that women were not allowed to walk the streets: as Penelope Corfield suggests, women, especially middle-class women, “readily joined the throng, walking out unveiled and in many cases unchaperoned … [with] Fashionable young ladies … the most trammelled by maidservants and companions”.

As a woman, and the daughter of radical thinkers, Mary Shelley would have felt keenly the problems of walking alone in the city whilst at the same time railing against the inequity of such negative attitudes towards women. But there is more. As Lauren Elkin writes:

The flâneuses … go walking in cities, but often with a purpose: to throw off the weight of their families, their husbands, their social roles, to explore who or what they can be, traveling around the world feeding off the chemical reaction, the flinting spark, provoked by the encounter with the foreign city[1].

Elkin’s description of the flâneuse might easily be a description, not of Elizabeth, but of Victor. His rejection of God, of the steadying influence of family, and his search for the ultimate ‘chemical reaction, the flinting spark’ within the foreign city of Ingolstadt is concomitant with critical perspectives that argue for Victor’s femininity – after all, it is he who gives birth to new life.


















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